What comes to your mind when you think of Chechnya, and Grozny in particular? A bombed-out city, bearded men and veiled women? Well, you could not be more wrong. When I visited in August 2019, not only the capital, but an entire country did not show the slightest traces of war. I was baffled, it was only 15 years earlier that a brutal war was raging in this country between Islamic separatists and the Russian army. What erased this part of Chechnya’s recent history was the program “Chechnya without Traces of War”. It started in 2005, one year after the war ended and made Chechnya, cities and also rural areas, look brand new. Nothing should remind of the horrible war, no ruins, abandoned buildings nothing.
Top secret – Duga 3
Nothing prepared us for what we saw after driving 9km through dense forest on a narrow concrete road. Duga 3, a radar system that warned the Soviet Union from missile attacks. Now abandoned like Prypyat, it evokes similar spooky feelings.
Our small group arrived towards sunset, a bored soldier opened the rusty gate and we walked past abandoned buildings and overgrown terrain.Eventually a longish building appeared and from behind it peeked antennae. And there is was this super long construction of metal pillars, despite its seize I was not able to grasp its importance. Duga 3 (two other dugas existed) was built near Pryprit because it needed so much electricity. The construction went up at the same time as the reactor. Between 1976 and 1989 it sent signals into the ionosphere 8000km above to check for holes that could have only been created by hostile missiles penetrating it. Since the 90s satellites are doing the job.
Not even my super wide lens was able to take photos of the entire metal construction that once warned the Soviet Union from missile attacks. An aerial view is the only way to get a complete picture of this maze of antennae and platforms, especially nowadays with trees and all kinds of vegetations creeping close and closer. It was so secret that on Soviet maps it was marked as a summer camp for children. This description was not outright wrong, because the staff who lived there had every comfort the SU could offer, similar to the living standards in Pryprit. But since the place did not officially exist, the residents were registered in Chernobyl, .
I have no clue how long the long building was that we explored or whether it was one of several that are connected. With the sun setting it was super spooky wandering inside these halls so long you could not see the end. Electricity cables were dangling from the ceiling and touching my face, some huge hole in the floor had to be avoided and the ceiling seemed dangerously fragile. All we had we our mobile phone flashlight.
The inside of the never ending building was equipped with to-notch equipment for the 1970s and 80s, computer nobody imagined they existed. Now the are strewn , computer grave yards
The Duga systems were extremely powerful, over 10 MW in some cases, and broadcast in the shortwave radio bands. They appeared without warning, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz, which led to it being nicknamed by shortwave listeners the Russian Woodpecker. The signal became such a nuisance that some receivers such as amateur radios and televisions actually began including ‘Woodpecker Blankers’ in their circuit designs to filter out the interference.
In total 188 villages were evacuated in Ukraine and Belarus after the nuclear accident in April 1986. But in 1987 about 1000 self-settlers, mostly older people, returned to the exclusion zone on their own. First these ‘Chernobyl Squatters” were illegal, but soon the government accepted it. Now about 100 of them are left.
Pripyat is only three kilometers away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and was evacuated the day following the blast. A fleet of 1300 buses shipped out the residents, who only had a few hours’ notice. Behind they left all their furniture and possessions that still can be seen in some buildings. Thirty years later, nature has taken over. Walking through this ghost town gives can be a bit creepy, but above all it feels like walking about into a freeze-frame of 1986 Soviet Union.
“Isn’t is dangerous?” is the first question when I mention my trip to Chernobyl und Pripyat. No, it is not. During a cross-Atlantic flight a person is exposed to a 10 times higher dose. When reactor 4 exploded on April 26th 1986, the 160-ton concrete lid was blown off, releasing a radioactive cloud of plutonium and other deadly nuclear isotopes into the atmosphere. The wind carried the radioactive cloud northwest, away from the town of Chernobyl. So it was spared the fate of Pripyat, now a ghost-town.
Trips to the exclusion zone are organized by various operators in Kiev. On the Ukrainian side trips to the 2600km2 exclusion zone started in 1999 . This is an area that was fenced off after the tragic accident. In 2017 approximately 20.000 visited the zone. The exclusion zone in Belarus, north of the reactor, is much worse off. About 70% of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster landed in Belarus, heavily contaminating one-fourth of the country. More than 2,000 towns and villages were evacuated, and about a half-million people have been relocated since 1986.
Kievan Rus – the powerful East Slavic state founded in the 9th century – is seen as the beginning of Russia and the ancestor of Belarus and Ukraine. The shining copulas of the many churches and monasteries are clear evidence of Kiev’s historic importance. Nowadays many Ukrainians would rather have all historic ties to Russia cut and forgotten.
The whole world was shocked when Mostar’s famous bridge was blown up in November 1993. Stari Most, the Old Bridge was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century and is considered one of the finest pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. War is not only about harming the “enemy” physically, but also its cultural and social fabric. The destruction of the Buddha statues in Bayan in Afghanistan is another horrid example.
Travnik was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years. This is one of the reasons why this scenic small town has so much to offer. The 16th century castle is the best place to get a view of Travnik, the quaint houses, the 19 minarets, all embedded in gentle hills. Not many cities can pride themselves of having a river starting its journey into the world from the very heart of town. It is also the home of Bosnia’s most famous writer, Ivo Andric. All in all, Travnik is a place where I felt at home, where I ate the best Ćevapčići and where I finally overdosed on this diet.